A young woman must decide who she serves.
|The Waite County Library was even more impressive than I imagined. I knew it was big, but there were so many books! A permanent musty haze settled over the entire building; it was exhilarating! Words, ideas, lifetimes poured onto pages for everyone to experience.
The field trip was a dream come true, but I had a shopping list to consider before self-indulgence. Unaussprechlichen Kulten; The Spring-heeled Jack, Mr. Skin, and other Urban Legends; The Dream Cycle of The Nameless City; Cthäat Aquadingen. Mother had been quite insistent about that. Luckily, I called ahead. All I had to do was pick them up at the counter
Kelly and Di had been through the Manga already and were giggling over explicit scenes in adult Romance. “You know you can read stuff that’s more than ten year’s old, right?”
“Shelly, you are such a geek!” Di stuck out her tongue. Kelly added, “Maybe you need a ‘throbbing turgid member’ in your life,” before they both started laughing.
Rolling my eyes, I smiled, “Whatever, girls.” I made sure to emphasize the last word.
My only friends at school, sometimes they infuriated me. But I always knew I was special, different from the others, even at home.
Around the corner, I saw a dark gap in the books. There was something moving in there, shifting, difficult to pin down, but I did see eyes. It leaped! It flew! A bat, a bat!
I saw its eyes, burning into me, lunging toward my face, “Ahhh!” stepping away, stumbling, landing on my back. Blackness.
Something wet was touching my nose. Opening my eyes, I saw it was a cat, orange tabby, not a bat at all.
But I know what I saw. Maybe another vision? I'd talk to Mother about it later.
“Michelle? Are you okay? I’m sorry if Misty startled you. She loves sleeping in the shelves.”
Embarrassed and shaken, “I need to visit the restroom. I think I’m done in here.”
In the bathroom, alone, coaching myself in the mirror, “It flew. It did fly. I saw it. I have to tell mother. She’ll want to know. This might mean something.”
I didn’t look at anyone as I headed to the bus, to my assigned seat. The books I’d reserved were already waiting for me, bound and wrapped in protective paper. Too bad I didn’t get a chance to find anything for myself.
A couple of the books were extremely old and only my familial reputation gave me permission to get them at all. Mother would have picked them up herself if she could.
There were five books here. I carefully unwrapped the bundle and on top, was a cheap looking tome called Ghost Stories in a very ugly typeset. It was a comb-bound paperback, like what someone would put together in their garage.
Flipping through, I stopped, gaping at a pen and ink sketch. It showed a child sleeping while his bed was surrounded by amorphous shadows that flooded out from the closet and sported hundreds of eyes. It was a childish comfort, but what struck me was the signature: The Surge by M. D., age 6. It looked very much like my own handwriting. He had another called The Prophecy with a child leading an army bathed in flame with a short poem beneath in blocky, familiar script.
The sides will sing in sun drenched drops, raining fire and water, steam born truths, peace from death, friends from foes, one from many, chaos from order, and triumphantly, a child shall lead them.
Again, it looked identical to my own handwriting.
When was this published? I flipped to the front cover and first few pages: no publication date. Never published, apparently. No way to know if it coincided with my childhood.
The ride back to school was lost in confusion. My friends let me be thankfully, possibly because they didn’t want to be seen next to the girl who freaked out at the library.
I read through Ghost Stories, front to back. It was only 120 pages long. M. D. had 4 stories and two drawings. His full name was never mentioned, even in the credits. Many of the stories seemed pulled from my home life and events around town, only twisted.
Mother would know what to do or who to talk to. She was the eldest, after all.
There was a senior cook out when we got back, but I slunk away. I couldn’t eat with so many questions unanswered. The hour long walk home was uneventful. When I reached The Crandon Woods, my guardian kept me silent company, respecting my wishes as always. Her red and black body was unevenly covered in fur and her mismatched legs produced an ungainly grace. She always kept at least one of her three eyes on me in case I did want to talk.
All I would tell her is that I had something important for mother.
At home, I entered through the back door as always, my aunt Alba was on the porch and the guardian went right up to her. “Thomething for mother, eh, Mithelle?” she lisped? Her pale flesh glistened in the lamp light as she nodded her bald head, “Mother’th out. The’th out and thomething feelth wrong. Thomething ugly and unclean.”
I pushed into the house and a wave of damp mildew washed over me. I inhaled it deeply: it was good to be home. The floor squished slightly until I reached the bedrooms. The air there was less humid, to keep clothes and paper from ruining too quickly. I left all the books in mother’s equally climate controlled library except for Ghost Stories.
I pulled out my own journal that I’d started at as an eleven year old and compared the writing. They are identical, but that doesn’t make sense.
I wish mother were here.
The whole house was vibrating, but there was no storm, no thunder. I went back to Alba, “They are here, my child.”
I could hear them shouting. Damn Isom cultists. “Why can’t they leave us alone?”
“It ith not in their nature. Go back to your room.”
Something else, gun fire. Aunt Alba twitched at the staccato, “Go back to your room.”
“I will not. Mother did not raised a coward.”
Her arm twirled around me, but with a gesture I forced it to drop, “Aunt Alba. If mother is out there, she is in danger. Let me do this.”
She relented as per the hierarchy. I was her superior though I was loathe to order her to do anything.
“The guardian will go with you, yeth?”
I nodded and ran out the front door, the guardian hidden as smoke around my ankles.
There were a half-dozen of them, walking down the street firing rifles blindly at any who approached them. Golden haired and symmetrical, they seemed more like machines than humans. I had trained for this: to be mother’s mouthpiece to the outside world. I had even been denied The Touch so they wouldn’t reject me on sight.
I stood directly in their path and using the voice of power, cowed them, “UNDER WHOSE AUTHORITY DO YOU INVADE MY TOWN?”
The clouds gathered in the sky, prepared to answer my call.
The invaders seemed hesitant to answer.
“YOU WILL ANSWER ME OR YOU WILL BE PUSHED BACK WITHOUT HESITATION AND WITHOUT MERCY.”
One man, tall and proud, stepped forward, “We have the thing you call ‘the Mother.’ We will trade her for you.”
I had heard enough, the sky opened and rain fell, enough to wash the streets of these interlopers.
“WHERE IS MY MOTHER?” I demanded. My guardian knew my intention and took shape beside me, four feet tall at the shoulder, and howled into the storm.
Others of her kind slid into the street from their homes, hiding at the edge of vision and waited for the signal.
“Take all but the one who spoke to me. That one, bring to me,” I whispered.
They wasted no time, the guardians fell onto the interlopers in a flurry of claw and fang.
Gun shots rang out, but hit nothing.
The spokesman was brought before me by two guardians.
“WHY CAN’T YOU PEOPLE LEAVE US ALONE?” I asked. “THIS WAS NOT NECESSARY. YOU ENTERED MY TOWN INTENDING TO DO VIOLENCE. TELL ME WHERE MY MOTHER IS.”
He spit, “You poor creature. You hide behind a pleasing form but do you even know who you really are? Can you remember your childhood? Can you remember your real mother?”
With a thought, he screamed out as pain tore through his internal organs, “DO NOT SPEAK TO ME IN SUCH A TONE. I SPEAK WITH MOTHER'S VOICE SO SPEAK PLAINLY OR NOT AT ALL.”
Groaning, he added, “Are you so manipulated by The Mother that you really don’t remember? We thought to rescue you, not... not this. Didn’t the book stir anything? Anything at all? You were stolen from us a long time ago and, today, at the library, we reached out to you. After more than a decade, we found you, changed but not so much that we couldn’t recognize you.”
I hesitated and he continued, “You are Micah Davenport. Stolen on the eve of your dedication. Stolen before you were given the means for your glorious purpose. Stolen from hands that loved you and birthed you. We captured the thief while she was hunting. We brought that thing to our temple for justice. If you want to see The Mother again, come back with me. Now. All will be forgiven.”
I could feel his sincerity, he planned to show me… show me something about my mother that would make me hate her. But I felt it and though it was a truth, not a lie, it was not borne from love. They were children of need, not love. Love was too unpredictable for them. They didn’t know what love was. Or fear.
“My name is Michelle,” I said as I willed his lungs to crawl out of his mouth ending his miserable life.
I nodded to the guardians and they dropped the corpse and began to feed.
“And I am going to rescue my mother.”
I walked home, slowly through the rain, with my guardian at my side. It felt good to be drenched, sloshing, and shivering, but I dried off quickly to avoid illness. My un-Touched body was weak, but had been necessary, or so I’ve been told. Repeatedly.
Aunt Alba has already loped into the room. “Good work. Mother will be proud.”
“They have mother, Aunt Alba. They have her and I have to get her back.”
Aunt Alba drooped her head, “Awful, awful thing.”
“Aunt Alba? I need to ask you something.”
She sat, “What ith it?”
“Did mother really steal me from the Cult of Isom when I was a kid?”
I pulled out Ghost Stories and handed it to her. Her long fingers flipped through it. She paused whenever she came across something from M. D.
Finally, she spoke, “Yeth. They, the outthiderth had a plan for you. End of the world thtuff. That’th all I know. Mother thaw better in you than a weapon. Rethcued you. Loved you—loveth you thtill. They only underthtand logic and purpothe.”
Purpose. My only purpose now was to rescue mother.
Tradition dictated that I see the Tenders before any hostile act outside of our town. Even in my heightened rage, the traditions were still foremost in my mind. Mother would want me to do what is right.
The stone steps into the caverns, the pits were slick but my step was practiced and quick. My un-Touched eyes were weak in the dim light but I was familiar enough to reach the chambers and stand before the Archivist.
Her robes were heavy and ancient, concealing her body and face. Her voice was cracked, raspy yet soothing as an autumn night. "Michelle. I assume all that noise has something to do with Mother missing?"
I just nodded.
The Tenders had a way of knowing what was happening. It was why I was here after all.
The Archivist's face was shrouded but I felt a sympathetic nod, a downturned smile, a glace of pity and pining. She told me, "They do have her in their temple. She is weak, but not dead. She waits for you and knows you will do as you should."
I turned to leave, feeling she had told me what she needed, but she touched my shoulder and said, "Michelle. Be cunning and careful. Do not underestimate them."
I nodded again.
Leaving the Archivists chamber, I saw the other Tenders had gathered in the alcoves. Each bowed as I looked toward them, but said nothing.
I felt their longing and their regret. I think in their hearts they wanted to help save Mother.
But this was my duty.
With my guardian draped about me as smoke, I left the rains at home and strode to the outsider’s church. It was a half hour’s walk, but if they were expecting me, perhaps I could get inside.
I banged on the church’s door until it peeked open. I saw an eye regarding me, “Who are you?”
“Please let me in! They said to come here if something happened and I… did any of them make it back? It was so chaotic and there was blood and—”
I collapsed to my knees and cried, “Please!”
“By The Eye, it’s her!”
I allowed myself just a slight smile.
The door slammed, then unbolted and swung open. Strong arms hefted me inside as I instructed the guardian to stay out lest they have wards that would harm her or detect her. She obeyed but promised to keep her senses sharp in case of danger.
Inside were a handful of acolytes, all staring and whispering. The strong arms had not loosened their grips, glancing up I saw stony faces, devoid of emotion.
The old man who had opened the door spoke to the men holding me, “You needn’t keep her held up, place her in the arrival chamber and I will fetch Ephraim and Belinda.”
I could feel the air sucked out of me as we crossed the threshold of the chamber. The dusty floor was covered in runes. I was being shunted, weakened, while inside.
I was dropped and before I could stand the door shut behind me. I was alone in a round room with a chaise, a writing table, and a few lanterns. I could barely catch my breath and my heart was racing.
“Hello? Why have I been put in this room? I was told to come here? Didn’t the others let you know I was coming? Am I going from being one group’s prisoner to another’s?”
There was a crackle and one wall revealed itself a screen. It faded on and two nearly identical people wearing white with gold trim sat at two similar desks.
The one on the left spoke, “We know that you had our extraction team killed.”
His voice was masculine; this was probably Ephraim.
The other one spoke, “But we are willing to write that off as an acceptable loss if you are really here to cooperate.”
That was definitely a feminine voice, if still monotonous. It must be Belinda.
My senses were still weakened by their magic. I was not able to read them, but I will not stay silent.
“I did as I was trained. The Mother taught me and drilled me, and I did exactly what was expected of me. You cannot blame me for that.”
Ephraim and Belinda both nodded slightly.
Ephraim pointed, “Look to the lower right side of your screen.”
Belinda added, “We have something to show you.”
A picture-in-picture filled up the lower right quadrant. I hardly recognized her in the brightly lit, sterile room. All four legs were bound, and she hung from ceiling shackles around her two main forearms. Her skin flaked and cracked and her simple eyes were closed. Only her compound eyes seemed cognizant of the situation.
I’ve trained for this. I’ve trained for this. I’ve trained for this. Deep breath.
“It’s The Mother. You did capture her. That was likely not an easy task.”
She heard my voice and her simple eyes opened slowly, a smile spread from cheek to cheek, “Mishal”
Her prehensile tongue unfolded toward the camera but wasn’t quite long enough to reach, “You came. You should not have came. But I have happy to shee you.”
Ephraim spoke, “We will feed her if you cooperate.”
Belinda spoke, “We may even dim the lights and keep her moist if you cooperate.”
I stared directly at them, “Why would that matter? You have me now. What does the fate of The Mother have to do with anything?”
I felt a wave of emotion from them, even over the electronic lines. It was brief but potent. And recognizable.
“I would like to meet my real parents in person. That is, I’d like to meet both of you in person. We had a great plan once. There is no reason that it cannot be continued.”
The screen went black. Both my birth and adoptive parents were gone.
The ground rumbled and the delicate right-angles of the room shifted.
A familiar dampness swirled around my ankles. You found a way around their wards?
Did you do that? My guardian told me that it was a group effort. Some of the town was preparing to assault the temple to get me and Mother out. The earthquake was just a side-effect.
No, I thought. I can get us out of this without more of us losing our lives. Ask them to hold off for an hour. But you come back. Stay as close as you can without being caught.
She slid away and carried out my wishes.
After pacing the room for a few minutes, the door swung open. It was Ephraim and Belinda.
Their faces betrayed no emotion, but I could feel the turmoil in their souls, a boiling up of buried secrets and lusts.
I said, “Hello” and bowed my head briefly.
Belinda said, “You will come with us.”
“Was that an earthquake?” I asked?
“It was nothing to worry about,” said Ephraim.
“Very well, I will come with you.”
I was no longer being held back by wards; their alignments had been shifted enough to free me. I reached out and felt my surroundings as I walked between them.
The route they took looped back on itself a number of times, but we were consistently going downward, into the earth.
The deeper we went, the less damage the quake had done.
At the bottom was a door of quartz lined with silver filigree. The runes may shut me down again if I crossed that threshold.
Find a way in! I sent a frantic message to my guardian as I went through and felt the drain and weight of the magic on top of me.
The brightly lit corridor ended in a similar door, beyond which was a large control room of some sort.
The air nearly burned in my nostrils and I felt a tingle on the tip of my tongue.
“Please wait over there,” Ephraim pointed to a recessed spot on the wall while he and Belinda headed toward the electronic panels.
“Are you ready for your great purpose, Micah?” Belinda asked.
“Yes, much has been lost but it can still be salvaged,” added Ephraim.
“What is the great purpose?” I asked.
They stopped fiddling for a moment.
Belinda turned to me, “You were raised neither male nor female.”
Ephraim added, “Neither good nor evil.”
Belinda again, “You were to be above the pettiness of humanity.”
Ephraim continued, “You were to be our superior, our leader, our great conqueror.”
Belinda again, “Logic and reason were to be your only devices.”
Ephraim again, “Feh on biology. Feh on morality.”
I interrupted, “A Nietzschean übermensch, then?”
Belinda scoffed, “Not a man. Nor a woman. Just humanity at its pinnacle.”
Ephraim concluded, “Yes. You can be salvaged, but you must be tested first.”
A final button push lowered one wall leaving behind floor to ceiling glass.
It was blinding on the other side. I shielded my eyes and looked inside.
Belinda addressed me, “The temperature is 110° F in there and the humidity is kept around 5%. The lights are bright, hot, and will be turned on 24 hours a day.”
Ephraim continued, “What happens to it is entirely up to you. Say the word and we can flood the room with fire, killing it nearly instantaneously.”
Belinda added, “Or we can keep her like this indefinitely by feeding her and watering her just enough to stop complete withering death.”
My brain tickled, my spine tingled. They were asking me to kill Mother or subject her to torture. If they kept her alive, they would eventually crack her mind open. What secrets would they steal? What would they corrupt?
I reached out looking for my guardian but she wasn’t there. I probed the world with my eyes closed digging into the earth beneath us, ignoring the bodies in front of me, going in a direction they wouldn’t anticipate.
The earth was our ally more than theirs. I would push downward.
Pushing through rock and soil, disturbing worms and microbes, touching tiny minds briefly for guidance.
I felt an expanse, a transition, a coiled serpent.
I gambled, “Burn her. She is too dangerous.”
Belinda and Ephraim went wide-eyed and exchanged slack-mouthed glances.
They lost concentration; they lost dominance for just a moment.
Belinda reached over to the control station, flipped a switch, unlocked a key-guard, and looked back at me.
She hit another toggle. Warning sirens began to sound and flashing red lights went off.
A tongue of flame poured from the corner of Mother’s cell and rapidly expanded.
At that moment, I pushed my mind with all my mental might into the earth, to the reservoir I had found.
I forced it upward, through tiny cracks left by traversing annelids and centuries of run off, blowing through them and pushing faster.
I allowed myself a quick look at the flames engulfing the room
“Mother is strong,” I told myself.
The room rocked and the floor shattered beneath us. Water rushed into the cell filling it completely while flooding our room to our knees.
The fire immediately died and the cell fell into darkness except for the red alarm lights.
Belinda was lying on her backside, “What just happened?”
Ephraim was franticly trying to manage the situation, “Containment lost? Power failures, another seismic event. This is supposed to be a stable location, dammit! That’s why we chose it!”
Belinda stared at me with narrowed eyes and a tight jaw, “What happened?”
“It must be The Mother! She did something!”
There was a thud on the glass.
Mother’s tongue was feeling along the surface, looking for cracks.
Belinda stood and grabbed Ephraim, “It’s free! It’s free! We have to get back. We cannot face it alone.”
Ephraim breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly, “Calm yourself. We have its adopted daughter. She will not risk harming her.”
They faced me and the color drained from them.
My guardian was between us, as tall as a lion, black fur bristling, red eyes gleaming, mouth slavering.
“You have nothing. You do not deserve to even lay eyes on Mother.”
They screamed clutching their eyes as every blood vessel in them exploded simultaneously.
“She is perfect in ways your warped cult can never understand. You want a ruler beyond humanity? One who rules without regard to society or biology?”
“I give you Mother. She who rules with universal compassion and fairness.”
“Mother who knows humanity is not fit to lead itself.”
“We serve a higher power and we are rewarded for our service. We do not seek to bring humanity down or control it.”
“We seek to free it from itself.”
All at once, my guardian leaped onto Ephraim and Belinda, the glass shattered, and mother’s strong arms embraced me.
Not for the first time, I wished I was not denied The Touch.
Water and darkness washed over me.
I awoke in my room to my guardian’s stale breath on my face.
Smiling, I opened my eyes, and reached up to pet her, “Did we make it?”
Yes, she told me. We are all safe and the Cult of Isom has lost a stronghold.
Mother stepped into my room, her simple eyes were reddened but an easy smile covered her face.
“Mishal. You are well. I am proud proud.”
She laid a hand on my chest, “My child. My child. Shleep now. Shafe. Shafe and home.”
I heard her claws clicking as she walked away but I was already drifting back to sleep.
I missed three days of school.
When I came back, Di and Kelly couldn’t stop talking about the earthquake and how that stupid cult finally got what it deserved.
The word around school is that it was an Act of God voicing His disapproval at what they were doing there in that pagan temple. Talk of virgin sacrifices, baby eating, sex with demons, all the things pop-culture obsessed but still Christian teenagers associate with Satan worship and generic witchcraft.
The temple was completely gone, having fallen into a sinkhole and buried under 30 feet of water.
I don’t know the official name of the new lake, but I’m calling it Ama-gi after Mother and how she rescued me while I rescued her.